Seal of Dane County County of Dane
Dane County Tree Board

Planting a New Tree

The best time to plant a new tree is during the dormant season when conditions are cool. The dormant season occurs either in the fall after leaf drop or in spring before bud-break. However, container grown and properly balled and burlapped trees may be planted during the growing season.

Make sure to contact Diggers Hotline before digging!

Read through each of the following sections to learn how to plant a new tree:

  • Dig the hole: Make the hole wide, as much as three times the diameter of the root ball. The depth of the hole is critical. It should be the distance from the bottom of the ball to the root flare (not the top of the ball), or an inch or two shallower in heavy soils. Break up the soil in a large area surrounding the tree. This provides emerging roots room to expand into loose soil to hasten establishment.
  • Identify the root flare: Roots spread at the base of the tree at the trunk flare. If the trunk flare is not partially visible, you may need to remove some soil from the top of the root ball.
  • Plant the tree at the proper height: Make sure the hole is dug to the proper depth and no deeper. It is better to plant the tree a little high, 1-2 inches above the base of the trunk flare. Planting a tree at the same depth it was planted at the nursery is almost always too deep. Always lift the tree by the root ball, never by the trunk, to avoid damage when setting the tree in the hole.
  • Straighten the tree in the hole: View the tree from several directions to confirm the tree is straight before you begin backfilling.
  • Fill the hole: Gently fill the hole about 1/3 full, then settle the soil by watering. If the tree is balled and burlapped, then cut and remove the strings and wire from around the trunk and top 1/3 of the root ball.
    Fill the remainder of the hole with existing soil, not amendments. Using existing soil will encourage roots to grow into the surrounding soil. Then water again to eliminate air pockets, which may cause roots to dry out. Add soil a few inches at a time and settle with water to avoid this problem. Make sure not to tamp soil. Continue this process until the hole is filled and the tree is firmly planted. Do not apply fertilizer at the time of planting.
  • Stake the tree: It may not be necessary to stake a tree for support if the tree is grown and cared for properly at the nursery. In fact, some studies show that trees establish more quickly and develop stronger trunk and root systems if they are not staked at the time of planting.
    However, if staking is needed for support, two stakes used in conjunction with a wide flexible tie material will hold the tree upright, provide flexibility, and minimize injury to the trunk. Remove stakes and ties after the first year of growth.
  • Mulch the base of the tree: Some good mulch choices include leaf litter, pine straw, shredded bark, and aged wood chips. Use two to four inches of mulch to layer the base of the tree. When placing mulch, make sure the actual tree trunk is not covered. A mulch free area about six inches wide at the base of the tree is sufficient to avoid moist bark conditions and decay.
  • Follow-up care: When the soil is dry below the surface of the mulch, it is time to water. Keep the soil moist, as over watering will cause leaves to turn yellow and fall off. Water the tree at least once a week if it does not rain, and more often during hot weather. Continue to water until mid-fall when temperatures decrease.
    Other follow-up care may include minor pruning of branches damaged during the planting process. Prune sparingly and immediately after planting, and wait to begin necessary corrective pruning until after a full season of growth in the new location.